Sunday, November 27, 2011

So What Are We Doing in Afghanistan?

That's a pretty good question.  I asked it, myself, a lot of times before I ever thought to come here.  Most of my answers to myself were pretty negative.  If you read the papers, you'll think that the only Americans here are soldiers who are constantly getting in firefights or driving over IED's.  You'll also get the idea that Afghanistan is populated only by dirt-poor Taliban who grow poppies for the drug trade during the day and plot ways to kill Americans by night.  You'd think that we're wasting money by the truckload on roads that aren't built and buildings that are falling apart, and giving it away to corrupt officials and crooked contractors.  You'd probably think that we've got no strategy at all, that we're just reacting to whatever the Attack of the Day is, and lying to reporters about how great things are going.  And you'd be wrong.

The reality is far, far, far more complex than that.  I think it's far more complex than even Iraq was.  Iraqis, at least, have an appreciation and understanding of modern ways of doing business, of how government works, what industry is, what schools should do, and so forth.  They may not always act in accordance with what Westerners would do, but they have a fairly good understanding of modern society.  Afghans, in general, don't.  Their country has been in at war for over 30 years now and wasn't very advanced before that.  They've essentially been on international welfare for ages.  (And if you think we know how to get people off welfare, you haven't been paying attention to Detroit, south-central LA, or most any other major city).  The more I learn about Afghanistan, the more complicated it gets.  I'm not alone: this slide below was prepared for General McChrystal to illustrate just how hard it is here:

General McChrystal's response to this was, "When we understand this slide, we'll have won the war".  He wasn't kidding.  Anytime you do anything here, it affects everything else, one way or another.

So now that we've established that this place is hard, and that you the public are probably misinformed, the question is, what's really going on here?  Well, that's like the parable of the three blind men trying to describe an elephant.  I'm just one of those blind guys, grappling with my own little corner of the elephant.  But I think my perspective is a pretty good one.

We're following a strategy that's being driven by a lot of things.  Time and politics are the two primary drivers.  There's a line in the sand that says that the Afghan government will be running the whole show by the end of 2014 and that international forces (including US) will play a minor and supporting role after that.  (Note that this does not say that all US and NATO troops will be out of the country, contrary to what a lot of pundits think).  This timeline is driven primarily by the domestic politics in both the US and Afghanistan.  That's the mission that's been handed down, so the US/NATO military forces, the various embassies, and the Afghan government, are all working unbelievably hard to try to figure out how to do it.

Our mission is to build the capability of the Afghan society, primarily the government, to manage their own affairs.  That means teaching them effective leadership and management skills and helping them build organizations that can function.  We're helping them establish ways to budget for, and then carry out, essential services.  We're building up Afghan security forces that can maintain control of the country and keep insurgents marginalized.  We're laying the groundwork for economic growth so that more people can have jobs and less incentive to plant bombs.

For years, we've been doing a lot of this stuff for them.  People told us they needed a road, we built them a road.  They needed electrical power, we put up a diesel generator plant and distribution system, and then provided the fuel to run it.  We became a "shadow government" because we know how to do things, while the Afghan government was not capable of providing those services.  But we can't do this anymore.  It's time to get the Afghans to learn how to do their own road maintenance, collect fees for electrical service, and provide fuel for the generators.  So we've shifted our focus to training, mentoring, and assisting the Afghan government to do these functions for themselves.  This has been going on now for a couple of years.  We've already transitioned some areas over to Afghan control and they're running the show there.  In three years, it'll all be under Afghan control.

I've been involved in planning efforts for our corner of Afghanistan, which includes the provinces of Kandahar, Uruzgan, Daykundi, and Zabul, all in the southern part of the country.  Our military and civilian team has been following an extremely complex and thorough planning process.  Basically it starts three years out with what the situation should be at the end of 2014, and works backwards, identifying what needs to happen in order to get to that point.  It identifies the risks, opportunities, hard-and-fast requirements for specific actions, assumptions, facts, best-guesses, resources, and much, much more.  There are dozens of people involved, representing dozens of organizations, all of which are putting some of their best minds to it.  For weeks now, we've been doing an iterative process: breaking off into specialized groups, brainstorming, identifying the key issues, discussing with other groups, comparing notes, re-working everything, doing everything we can to develop a solid campaign plan that can effectively achieve the mission, and is robust enough to handle the unexpected.  The end result will be a campaign plan that will guide operations over the next few years.

Little of this is visible to the boots on the ground, reporters, or others who have not been involved.  But the effects of the previous generations of campaign plans can be seen.  The district of Arghandab, that I wrote about a few weeks ago, was an unbelievably fierce battleground 18 months ago, but is pretty quiet now.  Most other districts around here are fairly quiet, too.  Yes, there are still kinetic operations going on not far from here, but the insurgency has been pushed way back.  Al Qaeda in the Afghanistan and Pakistan area has been torn to pieces.  The Taliban is still here and still effective, but it was never really popular, so their base of support has been seriously eroded.  We've made a lot of progress.  It's fragile, but it's progress.

The challenge now is to get the Afghan government to a level where they can sustain that progress by themselves.  The reality is that they're going to need a lot of help, both now and for the foreseeable future.  But that's our mission.  That's what we're doing in Afghanistan.

Monday, November 21, 2011

In the Spin Again

There's a bad case of the KAF Krud going around.  (KAF, of course, being the acronym for our own Kandahar Air Field).  I got the bug last week and have been calling its namesake all week ("kaf kaf kaf kaf").  Fortunately, though, my case was fairly short-lived, about seven days, but I'll have to live with the kaf'ing for several more, apparently.  Colds are no fun.

I just got back from an overnight trip to Spin Boldak.  We had a meeting between a headquarters team that I'm on and the military and civilian leaders in Spin.  The goal was to work through some of the planning and reporting requirements that will guide a lot of our efforts from here on.  As it turned out, we were in violent agreement with the Spin Boldak team on the general direction we should take; our differences were primarily in how some things had been worded, and the different interpretations that we'd put on them.  I think we're pretty much on the same page now.  A good feeling.

The rest of my team left after the meeting, but I stayed for the night in order to get a bit more familiar with Spin B and the players.  I got to see some of the Army unit's command and control, which was very enlightening.  I'll just say that they have a pretty good handle on the insurgent threat, where the insurgents operate, and how to respond to different kinds of activities.

This morning, I sat in on a shura with some village elders.  A "shura" is a meeting to discuss a particular problem.  Afghans are a very egalitarian society, meaning that they arrive at decisions by discussion and consensus.  This particular shura was called because kids in the village had been throwing big rocks at military vehicles when they passed through.  The rocks had caused some expensive damage, and the very act of getting close enough to throw these rocks meant the kids were putting themselves into danger.  So the Colonel called the village elders down to talk about the situation, get the kids in line, and to build some better bridges between the village and the military.  I think the meeting was successful.  The Colonel proved to be quite diplomatic, forceful, and effective.  The elders seemed to get the message and said all the right things.  The proof, of course, will come the next couple of times that military vehicles roll through.

I had no part in the proceedings, but was at the table anyway.  This time I brought my sketchpad.  I started doing a quick study of one of the elders.  He caught on to what I was doing right away and was very intrigued.  Then it turned out that he was one of the key village elders who set the tone for the rest.  I had to leave the shura early to catch the helicopter, but I pulled the drawing out of the pad and gave it to him across the table as I left.  He seemed to get a big kick out of it.  So that's my contribution to today's war effort: building bridges through art!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Death By PowerPoint

One of the major reasons that I was not keen on working at another headquarters command was pounded home to me tonight.  I sat through a 1 1/2-hour meeting whose sole purpose was to fine-tune the PowerPoint slides that will be given to a general tomorrow night.

You read that right.  We had 17 people (not counting me) in a conference room.  All but four were military officers, most of them at the Lieutenant Colonel level, meaning around 15-22 years experience.  That's a lot of horsepower, especially when you remember that other lieutenant colonels not far from here are leading thousands of soldiers into combat at this very moment.  But instead of combat, these guys were focused on briefing slides.  Over forty slides, none of which were legible from more than five feet away.  Each one had two logos, one title, multiple boxes, arrows, color codes, bullet points, 4-point font, and enough words to fill a Danielle Steele novel.  I could read the titles and maybe a headline or two over the bullet points, but that was it.  Even if you could read the fine print, it would take you half an hour to figure out what the slide was supposed to tell you, because it was so full of acronyms, compressed phrases, and Afghan-specific jargon.

I know the general that this briefing is intended for.  He's the kind of guy who loves to dig down into a topic, ask lots of questions about details, find the obscure little byways of an idea, and gnaw at it until there's no life left at all ... in either the subject or the audience.  And what's really scary is that these guys tonight are giving him a huge variety of topics to play with.  It'll take him six or eight hours to go through them all.  And he'd have a ball doing it, too.  Non-stop.

Not me.  I'm afraid I'm going to be tied up in another meeting tomorrow night.  Even if I have to make one up.

PowerPoint has been the bane of military operations for many years.  There was a great article in the NY Times a year or so ago that addressed it.  I used PowerPoint back in my own military career, but it was nowhere near as all-encompassing, nor as crammed full of data, as these presentations are.

I may be an 82nd "Chairborne", but I'm not a PowerPoint Ranger.  I'd rather pull out my toenails with a rusty pair of pliers than sit through tomorrow night's briefing.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Spin Boldak

Life is different when you're traveling with a general.  They go with entourages.  They'll have several cars to move everybody.  Helicopters wait for them.  When the group gets to wherever the general is going, there are people there to take and store everybody's gear, guide all the staff to their particular destination, and make sure that everybody is well taken care of.  They treat you like you're Very Important. 

I didn't have the heart to tell them I'm not very important.  The only ones who think I'm important are my dogs and sometimes my wife.  I just happened to be the designated staff officer to tag along on this trip.  But I didn't say anything, I just smiled and enjoyed it while I could.  Tomorrow, it'll be back to the real world: humping my bag and battle rattle (kevlar vest, helmet, and other heavy goodies) along a dusty road, waiting two hours for the helo to arrive (IF it arrives), trying to figure out where to go and what to do at the far end, and hoping to hell that I got off at the right FOB.  

Today's trip was to attend a quarterly operations briefing in the province of Spin Boldak, which is down on the border with Pakistan.  This briefing was special because it was being done by the Afghan National Security Forces, meaning the Army, National Police, Border Police, Customs, and the District Governor.  Now a US military organization could put on a presentation like this without breaking a sweat, although it would inundate you with 75 PowerPoint slides and detailed discussions of logistical and operational considerations that you would never have considered.  Not so with the Afghans.  This is still very new to them.  The men speaking today are smart in all ways Afghan, but many of them probably can't read and few have done much in the way of public speaking.  Still, they did a fairly credible job.  Very little of what they said was news to us, but that wasn't the point.  The goal was to get them to think about what it is they've done so far, what their goals are, what their resources are, how to get where they want to go, and how to put that thought process into words.  

Since I was considered Very Important, I had a front-row seat, right in front of the stage with the real VIP's.  That meant I couldn't nod off, scratch wherever it itched, or behave like I normally do.  So I entertained myself with sketching a few of the briefers instead, making it look like I was taking notes.  

This was the Chief of Police for the district of Spin Boldak.  He and his men have a very tough job.  This district has a sizable local insurgency.  More importantly, it has one of Afghanistan's primary border crossings with Pakistan.  There's a huge amount of traffic (well, huge for this area) going back and forth.  Smuggling has been a major occupation ever since the border was created and they're very good at it.  And the smugglers carry everything: war material in, drugs out, booze in, money out, people both ways, and more.  The Border Police are charged with taking care of the border, but the Chief of Police has to deal with all the district's related issues.  And he has to do it with a minuscule budget and people who often aren't paid for maybe months at a time.

This was the District Governor.  He also has an unenviable task.  Unlike American governors, Afghan governors don't have much power.  He doesn't make or control the district's budget, for example, since there isn't one.  All funds are apportioned to line ministries by the national government in Kabul, and the ministries control their own activities in the districts.  Imagine if your Department of Public Works was funded by, and answerable only to, a National Public Works Department in Washington.  That's what these guys have to live with.  They are, essentially, appointed by President Karzai to keep tabs on what's going on at the local level.  They kinda/sorta make the district's concerns known to the provincial and national level and maybe try to coordinate a few things between ministries.  Maybe.  And more than a few have been assassinated over the years.  Think you'd want that job?

But all in all, the briefing went well.  I had some good discussions with my contacts down there and met a few local Afghans, including the District Governor.  Then it was time for the Entourage to Depart, so off we went to catch our Blackhawk helicopters again and fly back to our base.  And then life returned to normal: back in the office, about a hundred emails were waiting for me.  Such excitement, I can't imagine.

Friday, November 11, 2011


Has it really been a week since I last posted?  It's been pretty hectic and the trip to Arghandab seems just like a couple of days ago.  I've been a travelin' man since then, having been out to the districts of Dand and Maiwand, as well as into Kandahar City twice.  We had another trip scheduled for today, but a bit of rain last night flooded out the roads.

These frequent trips are part of our effort to get everybody onboard with Transition.  That's transition with a big T, meaning it has all kinds of very loaded meanings.  Transition means the process of scaling back our efforts, shifting responsibility over to the Afghan government, and providing them with support and help while they get their own processes up and running.  It's a big, big task.  There's an overall plan that has been developed between the international community (mostly us, but with the participation of NATO, some neighboring nations, some not-quite-neighboring, the UN, and maybe a few others), all working with Afghanistan.  They've laid out the overall guidelines.  I'm part of the Regional Command South, which covers the provinces of Kandahar, Zabul, Uruzgan, and Daykundi, and we have developed our own plan for putting those guidelines to work in our area.  So I've been going out with a few others to work with the small District Support Teams that are out in the districts.  We go over the plan and how it can/should be implemented in their specific area.

Since every one is very different, it's a challenge.  Some areas are fairly quiet and secure.  Some areas are "kinetic", meaning there's a lot of fighting going on.  Some districts have good people in the government who are trying to do good things.  Other areas are stuck with guys who may be corrupt, or don't show up for work, or are lazy or incompetent.  More than a few government workers can't read or write.  Kandahar City is a major metropolis with somewhere around 800,000 people in a fairly small area.  Other districts are very rural, with only a few thousand people scattered over hundreds of square miles.  Mullah Omar came from just west of Kandahar and that area is still heavily influenced by the Taliban.  But most of the people in the region don't like the Taliban, viewing them (correctly) as brutal thugs.  So every area is very different and requires a very different approach.

On one of my trips, I went out to Maiwand District.  This was a good trip.  The team out there, to include the civilians and the military, has a good grasp of what they need to do and we just provided some specific help.  After the meetings, we went to an old British fort for a celebration with the local Afghans.

Now when I say "old British fort", I mean it was built sometime around the 1830's.  "Old" to you and me, yesterday to the Afghans.  It still has its original wooden doors, as you can see above.  This was apparently the last fort the British held before they withdrew from Afghanistan altogether.  The celebration was for Eid al-Adha, which is a major Muslim holiday.  It marks the end of the Hajj and commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael.  The American troops and civilians from the outpost hosted the celebration for local police and Army forces.  It was a lot of fun.  On the other hand, if I posted photos of the Afghans that attended, I could be putting their lives at risk, because this area has a lot of insurgents.  One step at a time ...

I've been able to do a little drawing on occasion.  This was made while waiting for our helo transportation back home.  Combat Outposts (COPs) are pretty basic places.  Tents, shipping containers, MRAPs, a generator or two, piles of water bottles, Hesco barriers (big cloth bags reinforced with galvanized steel mesh and filled with dirt, which makes pretty effective walls), gravel gravel gravel, and lots of razor wire.

There's lots more that I can write, probably because, when you're going so hard for so long, there's so much you want to share.  But not tonight.  Time to hit the rack.  Got an early morning tomorrow.  More soon.

Thursday, November 03, 2011


A UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter is a pretty nice ride.  Noisy, of course, but as military helicopters go, it's pretty smooth.  A group of us rode in this Blackhawk up to the Arghandab district center today for meetings with the District Governor and with the commander of the US troops in the valley.

Some helicopters feel like they have to gather their strength to leap off the ground.  Not Blackhawks.  They'll be sitting there, whopping and vibrating, and then just lift up and away, with no fuss or bother.  We cruised northwest over the Kandahar City suburbs (above) and then over a mountain range and into the Arghandab River Valley.  It was really quite beautiful, a wide valley bounded with very steep, rugged ridges that faded into a white haze in the distance.

Just over a year ago, the Arghandab Valley was one of the most contested pieces of real estate in Afghanistan.  It saw some of the most vicious fighting between US Army troops on the one hand and Taliban fighters on the other.  An article in the Atlantic magazine last year, titled "The Last Patrol", brilliantly captures the ferocity of the battles here.  (I consider this article a must-read).

A lot has changed in the year since the article was published.  The Army soldiers who fought so hard were largely successful in pushing the Taliban fighters out of Arghandab.  The few Taliban who are left can only mount an occasional raid or plant IEDs.  They don't control the territory anymore and are seen by the locals as being the losing side.  Now the challenge is in building Afghan capabilities to manage their own affairs without the Taliban.  That means helping to establish local government, building police forces, re-establishing the informal shuras by which Afghans have managed themselves for centuries, and forging links between the local government, the provincial government in Kandahar City, and the national government in Kabul.

This is hard.  Afghanistan has been in constant war for over 30 years.  Few Afghans now have any memory of what peaceful life was like.  First it was the Soviets, then the warlords, then the Taliban, and for the past ten years, we've been gradually rolling up the Taliban up.  This has given Afghans a very short-sighted outlook.  Why plan for the future when you probably won't be alive then?  Grab everything you can now.  This mindset permeates Afghan ministries, which results in corruption at all levels.  Ordinary people see it.  And if they don't see it, they invent it.  Afghans are masters at conspiracy theories and apply them to everything.  If some company gets a contract, it's not thought to be because they submitted the best bid; rather, they must have paid a bribe, or there are tribal connections, or it's a plot by (pick your villain of the day).

The low-level police, for example, are very corrupt everywhere in Afghanistan.  And they have a reason: they are paid a pittance, not enough to live on, so they have to do something to make ends meet.  They do this by setting up checkpoints and shaking people down.  If you're transporting produce, gasoline, or some kind of merchandise, you hand a portion of it over; if not that, then pay a bribe.  Or get the crap kicked out of you.  Or maybe killed.  This is the normal Afghan's daily experience with their government "services", so it's easy to understand why they're leery of supporting it.  (The national police have a slightly better reputation, and the army is actually well respected.  The army is much more selective and enlist better-qualified people, so it's not surprising).

Today we needed to talk with the District Governor of Arghandab.  Shah Mohamad Ahmadi is an extremely capable Afghan leader.  He's working hard to cross tribal and village boundaries, build a working government, provide services, and keep the Taliban out.  He's not getting much help from the provincial and national levels, though.  We talked for a long time about the difficulties that he is facing, as well as what the future holds with the transition to Afghan control coming down the pike.  The Governor was quite candid and held nothing back.

Subsequently, we met with the American commander of Army forces in the valley.  He is also extremely capable, as well as quite candid about the difficulties that he and his troops are facing now, as well as in the future.

So what did I take away from all this?  Our troops fought hard, and many died, to free this valley from Taliban control.  They succeeded.  To keep the valley free requires a reasonably effective Afghan government.  The Afghans, with our support, have only been at it for a bit over a year and have made a lot of progress.  But it's very, very fragile.  Now there's a deadline facing us.  We (the Afghans and the US) have only a limited time to get their government functioning at some very basic level.  If we pull out too soon, this valley will revert to either warlords or the Taliban.  One is just as bad as the other, both for Afghans and for our own strategic interests.

In 1989, we declared victory when the Soviets left, and then we walked away.  The subsequent turmoil led to the Taliban rule and Al Qaeda presence, which in turn led to 9/11.  We can't let that happen again. Not after fighting so hard and paying so much in blood and money.